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Why Digital Comics Are Different

And Print Can Grow Too

Published: 09/13/2010 10:47pm

Written for ICv2's Internal Correspondence #73, out soon.  We thought it time to make our case in print (as we have face to face throughout the summer) that comics are different from other media and that print can grow as a result of the growth of digital comics.   

 

Publishing is changing rapidly this year.  Amazon recently announced that it sells more digital books than hardcovers, and that it expects its digital book sales to pass paperbacks soon.  In comics and graphic novels, the largest publishers have recently joined the digital bandwagon, adding many major titles to what’s available in digital form.  The iPad appears to be creating a sea change in selling digital comic content, with tablets finally offering a platform that’s well suited to the medium.  There’s also lots of experimentation, with comic creators and digital publishers trying new ways to tell stories that take advantage of the digital medium. 

 

Meanwhile, the Webcomics movement, based on comics on the Web rather than on handheld devices, continues to grow, with significant audiences online and sales of collections in stores. 

 

These trends have lots of people in the business of comics and graphic novels wondering what’s next.  We’re putting on the ICv2 Conference on Comics & Digital at New York Comic-Con to discuss it. 

 

But for many in the comics biz, the biggest reaction is one of concern.  When you look at what’s happened to music, what’s happening to video, and what appears to be coming for books with text, that’s a natural reaction.  Here’s an overview of numbers released by trade associations for those three categories.   

 

Music, the first mass medium to be digitized, has been declining for a decade, with digital sales increasing rapidly but not fast enough to offset the decline in CD sales.  Music sales in the U.S. were under $10 billion in 2009, down from a peak of nearly $15 billion.  Digital sales are now over 40% of revenues.  Music  had two problems specific to the medium:  consumers got sick of buying albums instead of singles, and music companies were slow to make legal digital alternatives available as piracy grew. 

 

In video, DVD and Blu-ray sales declined 13% to $8.73 billion in 2009, with rental revenues up in transactions but flat in dollars and VOD and digital purchases up 32% but not enough to meaningfully offset the decline.   The big barrier to video downloads is still the lack of an Internet connection to most televisions, meaning that downloaders are still consigned to viewing their videos on computer screens or handheld devices instead of on their big-screen TVs.  This is changing rapidly, however, along with increased availability of video-on-demand services via cable.

 

Books with text, the closest comparison to comics, are seeing digital sales explode this year, with the 2010 market expected to total over 100 million e-books, more than triple last year’s sales.  Over 10 million e-reader devices are expected to be in consumer hands by the end of the year.   The market share for e-books through May was 8.5%, compared to 2.9% in the year-ago period.  Meanwhile, the nation’s largest book chains are reporting lower sales of books in their stores.  

 

Because most comics are in color and e-book readers that use e-ink are in black and white, the digitization of the comics medium is well behind books with text.  ICv2 estimated total U.S. sales of digital comics last year at only around $500,000 to $1 million retail, or around 1% of the market for print.

 

But this year, with increasing sales to the iPhone and iPod, the release of the iPad, availability of digital comics for the desktop, and more tablets with color screens on the way, we expect sales to increase by a significant multiple.  And, we believe that unlike the other media we’ve talked about above, comics have the potential to experience growth in packaged form (i.e., floppies and graphic novels) at the same time as digital grows exponentially.  Here’s why. 

 

First, the business of selling actual comics and graphic novels is a tiny niche compared to the other businesses we’ve been talking about.   ICv2 estimated that sales of comics and graphic novels in the U.S. and Canada totaled only $680 million at retail last year.  Compared to music, video, or books, all of which were over $10 billion last year, that’s a pittance. 

 

On the other hand, awareness of many comic properties is very high.  That’s because comic characters have been widely (and increasingly) used in media with mass appeal, such as TV, movies, and videogames, and because comics also pick up characters and stories from other media.

 

This creates a huge opportunity for comic content to reach new audiences using digital delivery.  Digital distribution also offers new ways for unknown properties to build audiences, reaching many more people than have ever been able to buy physical comics by new companies or creators. 

 

Digital distribution can reach anybody with a reading device or computer, offering a much broader audience than a couple of thousand comic stores or even a few thousand bookstores can.    The great news is that it appears that at least some of those new customers are moving to purchase comics and graphic novels in print as well.

 

We started to see this trend last year, when IDW Publishing, which has been a leader in moving into digital comics, launched its Star Trek Countdown miniseries, a movie prequel storyline, in digital form at around the same time as it launched the print version.  IDW actually saw sales on later issues of the print version go up in the wake of the digital launch, which it attributed to new consumers being exposed to the material in digital form and switching over to print.  Over-all sales on the print version were excellent, even though sales of the digital form were greater than print sales.   

 

This year, we’ve been hearing from comic retailers across the country that are seeing new customers that were first exposed to comics in digital form who are now seeking out graphic novels so they can have a physical book as well. 

 

So while there will definitely be a generational shift, with younger consumers more likely to prefer reading on digital devices or desktops, the opportunity to reach the mass audience that has been going to movies, watching TV, or playing videogames that have a comic connection appears so much greater that we see more upside than downside for print comics.  

 

The Dark Knight, the #3 top-grossing film of all time in the U.S., grossed over $550 million at the box office, representing well over 50 million tickets.  The top-selling Batman comic sold around 88,000 copies in comic stores last month.  The difference between those two numbers, even if you cut the number of movie-goers by a third to reflect those people that don’t read for pleasure, is the size of the opportunity for comics. 

 

Changes in the comics business in recent decades have been driven by changes in distribution.  The advent of digital comics represents the fourth major distribution shift for comics seen in the last thirty years. 

 

In the 80s, the growth of comic stores offered a dedicated retail environment that crushed the newsstand system and created a place where the community of comic fans thrived.  This channel is so efficient for publishers that it’s among the most profitable channels in any publishing category.

 

In the late 90s, online retail began offering a way to reach comic fans without access to comic stores a convenient way to buy graphic novels, and to a lesser extent floppies.  Online communities also grew up, connecting comic fans across time and space.

 

In the 2000s, the growth of graphic novels in bookstores greatly expanded the retail footprint of comics and gave new demographic groups, including female consumers and kids, more and better access to comic material. 

 

Now in this new decade, we see digital comics bringing another period of revolutionary change to the business of comics and graphic novels. 

 

Where will it lead?  No-one can say for certain, but we think it’s up.

 
 
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